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Sustainability – get up and grow

24 February 2012 by
Sustainability – get up and grow

With demand for local and seasonal food ever increasing, what better way to guarantee local supply than growing your own? Emily Manson explains that even if space is at a premium there's always room to cultivate some produce and a great sustainable story.

"Locally sourced" has been one of the favourite phrases in restaurants' vocabulary for a while now, as customers increasingly want to know more about what they are eating and where it came from. It's hardly surprising that to try and accommodate this growing passion, operators across the UK, rural and urban, are looking to use space either inside, outside or near to their businesses to grow their own produce.

The trend for kitchen gardens is taking hold, and they're springing up all over the place as businesses try to reap the rewards and economic benefits of producing their own fruit, vegetables and herbs. After all, it doesn't get more local than your back garden or roof.

For some it's on a grand scale that only a few can emulate, but others without the luxury of space are still finding spots to cultivate some great produce for their kitchens.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association's managing director, Mark Linehan, says: "Large or small, urban or rural, any restaurant can grow something. With growing demand for local and seasonal food, there's no better way to guarantee supply of both of these consumer friendly concepts than growing your own."

you don't have to think big
Raymond Blanc's garden at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons is legendary and the fine produce he reaps significantly enhances his incredible food, but it's not just the top end operations that are getting involved. Anyone with a window, wall or roof can get stuck in, whether it's a window box for some herbs, a few pots growing vegetables, a flat roof space, or perhaps a beehive or two. The options are endless and the rewards enormous; where there's a will there's a way to grow.

An allotment is another way of engaging staff in cultivating environmentally sound goodies for your kitchens. Ethical Eats and Capital Growth's Adopt a Plot scheme links chefs up with local community-run food-growing spaces. Project officer Kelly Parsons says: "We're creating some great relationships - like the one between the Table Cafe in Southwark and nearby St Mungo's Putting Down Roots scheme. There is real excitement from chefs about the possibility of getting hold of super-fresh, super-local produce, and the opportunity to work with a grower to get hold of bespoke-planted fruit, vegetables and herbs, even unusual varieties they find it hard to source through conventional suppliers."

Eloise Dey, Capital Growth's project officer, adds: "The chef, their customers and the grower all benefit from the rise of urban food."

Kitchen garden guru and renowned horticulturalist Richard Vine, who helped create the spaces at Lucknam Park and Le Manoir, agrees that when growing your own, whatever you do can provide a multiple win situation.

"It really is exciting and you wouldn't believe the taste difference," he explains. "So many young chefs don't properly understand seasonality and when you get them out in the garden, cutting and smelling herbs, it re-engages their passion."

Of course there are also hard-nosed business benefits to growing your own. Saving money on purchasing is obviously key, but there is also "that magical PR and marketing touch" as Vine calls it.

"If you pick the right crops the process can be financially viable," he says. "On top of this people really do want to know where their food is from so if the chef can put on the menu where the dish has been grown then it really has a big impact."


Creating a low maintenance garden
Swinton Park castle hotel, Ripon, N Yorkshire

The garden at Swinton Park was originally a walled area tended by 12 gardeners to grow produce for the house when it was a family home. When the castle was bought back by the Cunliffe-Lister family in 2000 (it was their ancestral family home), it was a Christmas tree plantation.

Clearing the site started in 2001, with planting beginning in 2003. The original plan began with four crops: asparagus, autumn fruiting raspberries, blueberries and artichokes.

Owner Felicity Cunliffe-Lister says: "There was initially doubt how much the chefs would be able to use seasonal produce but now they embrace the quality and 65-plus varieties of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown in the garden."

The cutting garden also provides the hotel's flowers from summer until October. Susan Cunliffe-Lister designed the gardens and has used some quirky techniques to cut down on man hours (she has two part time staff) and pesticides. She says: "We lay a breathable membrane throughout the garden to cut down on weeding; we use sheep fleeces to insulate the more delicate plants; and organic hay bales to grow tomatoes in."

Other running costs are minimal - just seeds, bulbs and plant food, as hardly any spray is used. The value of what's grown (including flowers) is around £12,000 per year. The largest crops last year included fennel (154lb), asparagus (637lb), raspberries (524lb) and beetroot (258lb).

Many wild ingredients such as garlic, rowan berries and mushrooms, are also sourced from the surrounding estate.


up on the roof
The Three Stags pub, Kennington, south London The Three Stags has a roof garden with a vegetable patch and a beehive, although owner Richard Bell admits he's not the one with green fingers, only the drive. "We have a beekeeper and a gardener looking after everything," he explains.

Bell started the garden last year and soon realised that some crops weren't very efficient. "We had loads going on at first but we'd only get a handful of something once in the summer as opposed to something that grows in abundance like rocket. We've learnt huge lessons," he adds.

This year they are limiting themselves to spring onions, shallots, rocket, baby carrots, pak choi, ruby chard, pea shoots, parsley, lovage, rosemary and possibly radishes, beets and some wild garlic.

"We've realised we need to grow a few items that are sustainable, will grow in abundance and keep going throughout the summer," says Bell.

He is also looking at a patch of land near the pub, which would be big enough, if used as an unofficial allotment, to support half his fruit and vegetable requirements for the year.


Having your hands in the soil leads to a happier state of mind
The Wild Food café Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, London

In operation for just over three months, the Wild Food café was befriended by a local resident who allowed the owners to use her roof garden to grow and harvest produce. The garden had already existed for many years and included tended areas with trees and vegetables, as well as nettles and goose grass.

Restaurant owners Joel Gazdar and Aiste Lei were always planning to run a restaurant that used local produce and made the most of organic and biodynamic ingredients but they weren't planning on opening in the middle of this recession. It was only when the opportunity to run the Neal's Yard site was presented to them did they feel they could not resist the offer.

"The garden is really useful. It's not massive but it's great to be able to get really fresh produce and be in tune with the seasons," says Gazdar.

All the staff help to tend the garden, and Gazdar says it helps foster good feeling among the team. "It's rewarding to feel directly connected to where the food comes from and it's a joyful thing. It's hard to be grumpy when you're in a garden. Having your hands in the soil is a grounding experience and leads to a happier state of mind, inspiration and better ideas."

There is also a watering system on the outside of the building which is used to water the window boxes that adorn the front of the restaurant, growing wheatgrass and herbs.


Saving a substantial amount of cashflow
Troughs café, Avoncliff, Wiltshire Gary Say and Phil Rimmer's café Troughs is on the edge of what used to be farmland belonging to Rimmer's in-laws. The pair have worked together with Derek and Sybil Mumford to work out what to plant and harvest.

Say says: "We'd always worked this way, having been at Woolley Grange together, which had a big walled garden. It came naturally to do this. Sybil and Derek ask us what we want seasonally, we talk it through and they tend it for us. They are retired and enjoy the gardening side of it and it's a real family interest."

They grow their own herbs including rosemary, thyme, parsley and lovage as well as other vegetable staples including potatoes, onions, celery, leeks, brassicas, tomatoes, chillies, quinces and medlars.

"Things like medlars and other old English varietals are hard to source," Say says. Although it doesn't sustain all the café's requirements it saves them a "substantial amount" of cash-flow. Having been open only 18 months, Say says they have to be realistic. "If we didn't have the garden we'd just have to look at other places to save money. We want to be as sustainable as possible and make an effort in every area of the business."

But while they don't ram it down people's throats, customers still appreciate their efforts. "We don't bang on about it. We don't feel we have to as we have genuine sincerity and people can see that stuff is grown on our land. If we get tomatoes, they'll be made into Sybil's tomato soup - you don't need to explain that," says Say.


Richard Vine's Tips On Growing Your Own
1 Get someone in to give an appraisal of your situation and specialist advice. It's important to understand your potential growing space, the soil, shade, etc.
2 Talk to your chefs and management to find out what they want from the area.
3 The smaller the space, the more important the need for maximum yield.
4 Get your chefs to talk to the gardeners. They can plan menus and dishes together that are seasonal, local and can't be sourced from anywhere else.
5 Go for high value items or items that are specific to your menu.
6 Choose products that can have multiple crops like pea varieties which can be used for tendrils, canapé mange tout, normal mange tout and then peas.
7 Get your chefs to help in the garden to really engage them.
8 Designate someone to look after your crops or else you could find months of hard work end up wilting and going to waste.
9 No matter how small the potential area, there's something to fit your space: there are vertical growing walls, window boxes and more.
10 There's no excuse not to do it!

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